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Lawyers acting on behalf of a Texas death row inmate currently scheduled to be executed in less than a month have sued the state for prohibiting him from the free exercise of his religious beliefs in his final moments.
John Henry Ramirez, 37, is currently scheduled for execution on Sept. 8 for his role in the the 2004 murder of Pablo Castro. Ramirez killed Castro during the commission of a robbery committed with two accomplices in search of money for drugs that netted the three $1.25, according to the Associated Press. Ramirez, according to the Corpus Christie Caller-Times, beat and stabbed Castro 29 times before the three fled; the Texas Tribune reports that the women involved in the crime were arrested on the same night and eventually convicted of the crime. Ramirez evaded arrest until 2008. He was convicted of Castro's murder and sentenced to death in 2009 after directing his lawyer to cease presenting mitigation evidence on his behalf during his sentencing phase.
In 2011, after what he told the Caller-Times were entreaties from his mother and a half-sister of whom he had previously been unaware to try to appeal his sentence rather than rush his own execution, Ramirez began appealing his case. It was also around that time that reports emerged of Ramirez openly acknowledging his spirituality.
"I found God a long time ago but I'm not gonna turn holy roller since I ruined my life," the Caller-Times reported Ramirez told a psychologist who examined him while he was initially trying to speed his own execution in early 2011. "God ain't going save me."
Ramirez's late efforts to overturn his conviction and sentence were unsuccessful at both the state and federal level, and he was initially scheduled for execution in February 2017. That execution was stayed by federal courts after a lawyer successfully argued that Ramirez's previous lawyer had abandoned him by failing to file the standard clemency petition after his execution was scheduled, according to the Texas Tribune. The stay was granted to allow Ramirez to find new counsel.
He was eventually rescheduled for execution on Sept. 9, 2020, but a Texas judge canceled that execution on Aug. 14, 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Associated Press.
With Ramirez's new execution date of Sept. 8 fast approaching, a lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday says that Ramirez made a request through the proper administrative channels of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that his spiritual advisor, Pastor Dana Moore of the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christie, accompany him into the execution chamber and remain there for the duration of his execution in order to perform the ritual laying on of hands as Ramirez dies.
The state refused his request, the lawsuit says, and Ramirez exhausted all remedies short of the lawsuit.
According to documents filed with the court, Moore has been ministering to Ramirez since 2016, including visiting with and writing him letters, in order to guide Ramirez in the practice of their faith. Moore has agreed to accompany Ramirez into the execution chambers and minister to him during the execution, and has filed an affidavit with the court explaining that the laying on of hands at the moment of Ramirez's death is a necessary part of their faith tradition to "bless Mr. Ramirez at the moment of his death."
In the lawsuit, Ramirez's lawyers explain that the laying on of hands comes directly from the New Testament, citing Acts 8:11-12 and 17 as well as Paul 19:1-6 to explain that their beliefs reflect that the Bible noted that it took the physical touch of the Apostles Peter, John and Paul for the Holy Spirit to enter converts after baptism.
They also note that an April 2021 protocol, written to comply with the Supreme Court ruling in Murphy v. Collier (in another Texas case), specifically allows a spiritual advisor to accompany a death row prisoner into the execution chamber as long as that advisor passes a verification, a background check and a day-of screening. The protocol does not address whether such advisors may have physical contact with the condemned prisoners to perform religious rites.
Ramirez contends that the state of Texas' refusal to allow Pastor Moore to accompany him to his execution and perform a laying on of hands to bless him as he lays dying violates both his First Amendment rights to the free exercise of his religious faith and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which provides for the free exercise of religious faith by people who have been incarcerated.
Ramirez v. Collier has not yet been scheduled for argument.
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